Harry Edmund Martinson was born on May 6, 1904, in Jämshög in the southeastern province of Blekinge, Sweden. His father, a captain in the merchant marines and later an unsuccessful businessman, died when Martinson was five. One year later, his mother emigrated to the United States, leaving her seven children to be cared for by the local parish. As a child, Martinson escaped from harsh reality into nature and into a fantasy world nourished by his reading (in particular the works of Jack London), and he dreamed of going to sea. He spent two years as a vagabond throughout Sweden and Norway before going to sea as a stoker and deckhand. He spent the next six years on fourteen different vessels, with extended periods in India and South America, before he finally returned to Sweden, having contracted tuberculosis.
The year 1929 proved to be a turning point in Martinson’s life. He made his literary debut and also married the writer Moa Martinson, beginning a stimulating partnership which lasted until 1940. During the early 1930’s, Martinson was tempted to pursue a career as a professional artist. His favorite subjects were factory workers, the jungle, and underwater scenes executed in a colorful and naïve style. In August, 1934, he participated in the Soviet Writers’ Congress in Moscow, an experience which disillusioned the former Communist sympathizer. The outbreak of World War II was seen by him as the result of the “civilization of violence.” In 1939, after Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union, Martinson joined the Finnish side as a volunteer. He wrote a book about his experiences, partly a glorification of rural Finland and its deep-rooted traditions as well as the country’s courageous battle against the war machine from the east, partly direct reportage from the front, the “unequivocal idiot-roaring grenade reality.” In 1942, Martinson married Ingrid Lindcrantz and settled in Stockholm, where he died on February 11, 1978.